Fire raining down from space onto a planet besieged. Vast spacecraft erupting in explosions, while desperate soldiers in armored suits pummel each other with the butts of laser rifles. An awe-inspiring display of sweeping vistas rendered with the latest special effects technology: vast cities! Towering idols! Brave stands! Smoldering kisses in steamy pools!
Isaac Asimov had a term for this. “In the movies and television, science fiction deals primarily with images, so we might call it image-science-fiction,” he wrote in 1979. “Since the show-business people and journalists who talk about image-science-fiction refer to it, abominably, as sci-fi, suppose we call image-science-fiction i-sci-fi or, better yet, eye-sci-fi.”
The late grand master, who reserved the more dignified abbreviation “s.f.” for literary science fiction, held out hope that one day, “visual science fiction may graduate from sci-fi to s.f.” Whether the epic spectacular described above will qualify as eye-sci-fi or s.f. would be a matter of particular interest to Asimov: it’s Foundation, the forthcoming Apple TV+ series based on what the trailer describes as Asimov’s own “groundbreaking novels.”
Reverent as that description is, it may not be a promising sign for Asimov fans who know the original Foundation chronicles weren’t novels at all: they were a series of short stories and novellas published between 1942 and 1950, subsequently compiled into three books that became known as “the Foundation trilogy.” Not until the 1980s did Asimov write true Foundation novels, adding four books that expanded the story’s scope.
Though the Foundation series received a special Hugo Award for Best All-Time series—beating out J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—Asimov’s dismissive approach to “eye-sci-fi” reflected the constant difficulties filmmakers have had in translating his perennially popular stories to the screen. If showrunner David S. Goyer’s Foundation ends up being the best Isaac Asimov adaptation ever to hit the screen, it will have cleared a very low bar.
“People have been trying to make Foundation for over 50 years,” said Goyer in a promotional video for the series. He’s not wrong. Despite being, by some measures, the most popular science fiction writer of all time, Asimov has inspired only a short and quirky filmography that’s mediocre at best and often downright abysmal. Goyer is up against a conundrum that’s bedeviled would-be adapters for the better part of a century: despite being a highly accessible author whose work is full of big and exciting ideas, Asimov’s simply not cinematic.
In the WWII-era Golden Age of science fiction, Asimov helped advance the genre by defying the conventions of pulpish adventure stories; writing puzzle-like plots informed by his study of science and world history as well as his fondness for mystery stories. In summary the plots of Asimov’s stories often sound like they should be exciting, the Foundation stories very much included. An intrepid team of desperate scientists, exiled to a barren world, secretly plot to save a decaying galactic empire from itself—with trillions of lives at stake! Dashing traders! Imperial raiders! Palace intrigue!
In fact, though, the bulk of Asimov’s science fiction pages were actually dedicated to long, probing conversations among small groups of people. Asimov seemed almost bored by the more spectacular aspects of his stories, to the point that in the Foundation stories and elsewhere, Asimov would have space battles and other action scenes take place “offscreen”—even though he didn’t have to worry about a special effects budget.
From the beginning, Asimov was both enticed by the silver screen and suspicious of it. Born in 1920, he grew up in an era when science fiction was just starting to emerge as a significant force in popular culture. He was fascinated by the growing ambition of the writers behind speculative stories and comics; while action-packed movie serials like Flash Gordon may have thrilled the masses, Asimov dismissed them as shallow and thoughtless.
“There were occasional movie series that seemed to aspire to a science fiction quality not quite as high as those of the comics,” Asimov recalled in a 1980 essay. “Even more occasional serious motion pictures appeared now and then that might be classified as honest science fiction. The Shape of Things to Come springs to mind.” (That 1936 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s 1933 novel was actually just called Things to Come.)
In the posthumously published memoir I. Asimov, the author wrote that “I have always estimated that any but the most trivial connection with Hollywood, however profitable it might seem at the moment, would end in disaster, and I have stayed away from the place. I have never regretted it either.”
Yet, movies and TV always beckoned from afar, and Asimov was being slightly disingenuous to suggest that he wouldn’t answer the phone when filmmakers called. He was never averse to increasing his own fame and fortune, especially in the early years before he quit his day job in research biochemistry.
Over a 1951 lunch with fellow writers Ray Bradbury and Frederik Pohl, Asimov hit on the idea of seeking his fortune in the burgeoning field of television, playing off a trope made popular by the masked, horse-riding hero of radio’s smash hit series.
“If I were to write a juvenile science-fiction novel featuring a Space Ranger, we could get a long-term television series out of it that would coin millions,” wrote Asimov in his 1979 autobiography. “What bothered me, though, was that all the television I had seen (except for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca) was uniformly awful. What good would millions of dollars do me if I were ashamed of its source?”
Hence, David Starr: Space Ranger was published in 1952 under the name of Paul French. Over the course of five sequels, “David Starr” became “Lucky Starr”… and “Paul French” became “Isaac Asimov,” who claimed the books publicly when “another program, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, beat us to it and was just as terrible as I feared television would make such things,” he wrote in I. Asimov.
As his career progressed Asimov did end up on TV, quite often—but as himself, making talk show appearances where he’d discuss anything and everything. He largely put his science fiction writing on hold throughout the 1960s and 70s, churning out hundreds of nonfiction books on everything from space exploration to the Bible to being a self-described “dirty old man.” (Asimov’s original Foundation stories contain highly uncomfortable instances of lascivious banter directed by older men towards younger women and girls.)
After 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a game-changing collaboration between director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke, it was clear that onscreen science fiction could grapple with Asimov-size ideas. Could it grapple with Asimov? Certainly, it tried.
Asimov was among the “high-prestige individuals,” as he unironically put it, who sat for on-camera interviews about extraterrestrial life and other subjects as part of a promotional reel that emphasized the seriousness of purpose behind 2001. He didn’t get paid for that, he noted in his autobiography, “but it was for Arthur Clarke, I told myself, and you can’t let a pal down.”
Throughout the 70s, directors would often go to Asimov when they needed a science advisor who might add a little fandom marquee value. Asimov lunched with Woody Allen in 1973, praising the script for Sleeper. Allen, not a science fiction reader, asked how much Asimov had written and the author replied, “Not much. Very little, actually. Perhaps thirty books of it altogether. The other hundred books aren’t science fiction.”
“Allen turned to his friends,” Asimov recalled in his autobiography. “‘Did you hear him throw that line away? Did you hear him throw that line away?’”
In 1975, the author added, “I visited Steve Spielberg, a movie director, at his room in the Sherry-Northland. He had done Jaws, a phenomenally successful picture, and now he planned to do another, involving flying saucers. He wanted me to work with him on it, but I didn’t really want to. The visual media are not my bag, really.”
When released, Close Encounters of the Third Kind would deeply irritate Asimov. “It was pretentious, and that was fatal,” he wrote in a 1978 essay. “What’s more, it made its play for Ufolators and mystics and, in its chase for the buck, did not scruple to violate every canon of good sense and internal consistency.”The list of Asimov adaptations that didn’t happen is truly wild.
Asimov compared Close Encounters negatively to Star Wars, a fun film that he understood—as George Lucas intended—to be in the spirit of the early science fiction movie serials, executed with an ingenuity that lifted the project to a level of its own. In what must have been one of the more miserable assignments of Asimov’s career, he agreed to critique Battlestar Galactica for Newsday, dutifully penning several pages detailing all the ways in which the TV series was a pale Star Wars imitation.
The screen franchise that Asimov loved most, of course, was Star Trek. He saw the show’s technophilic idealism and creative plotting as being “true science fiction” (per a 1990 letter), and was proud to have his name appear “in prominent letters” as science consultant on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
Asimov praised the original series in TV Guide and wrote encouraging letters to creator Gene Roddenberry. When Spock became an unexpected sex symbol, Asimov was over the moon at the evidence that “women think being smart is sexy.” When actor Leonard Nimoy read that assessment, he wrote to Asimov, sharing the author’s enthusiasm that the public had apparently moved on from worshipping Marlon Brando.
None of this, though, led to a substantial Asimov screen adaptation. There are curiosities: his robot novels The Caves of Steel (1954) and sequel The Naked Sun (1957) saw television adaptations in the UK in the 60s; unfortunately those films have been lost, except for a few brief, fascinating clips of the 1964 Caves of Steel featuring Peter Cushing (!) as Asimov’s detective hero Elijah Baley.
Asimov’s 1958 story “The Ugly Little Boy” saw a simple but affecting TV adaptation in Canada circa 1977. His 1941 classic “Nightfall” was warped into a low-budget, almost unwatchable 1988 movie full of bad actors having weird sex. That same year his robot novels became the basis for a mystery game with a VHS movie that challenged players to solve a crime inspired by the murder that Baley and his robot partner investigate in The Caves of Steel.
The list of Asimov adaptations that didn’t happen is truly wild. Orson Welles paid $250 for the permanent movie rights to “Evidence,” a 1946 story about a politician who’s suspected of being a robot, but the film never materialized. “What a fool I was!” to have sold those rights, moaned Asimov in his autobiography… not that anyone ever showed up to start a bidding war with Welles.Around the turn of the 21st century, finally, two Asimov movies—with real budgets, and real stars—hit theaters. Neither was very good.
Three decades later, Asimov met with “Paul McCartney, who had once been a member of the Beatles singing group,” as the author recalled in a 1980 autobiography. (Yes, Asimov published three books about his own life.)
McCartney wanted to do a fantasy, and he wanted me to write a story out of which a screenplay could be prepared. He had the basic idea for the fantasy, which involved two sets of musical groups: a real one, and a group of extraterrestrial imposters. The real one would be in pursuit of the imposters and would eventually defeat the imposters despite the fact that the latter had strange supernormal powers.
Asimov duly wrote a story treatment. “It was a suspenseful, realistic, and moving idea, and I took it in rather proudly,” he continued. “I was paid for it, but McCartney didn’t want it.”
The author died in 1992, his suspicions of Hollywood never truly allayed. To his great consternation, the movie he was most commonly associated with during his lifetime was one he had no role in the making of. That was 1966’s Fantastic Voyage, an “eye-sci-fi” flick about a submarine-like vessel of voyagers who miniaturize themselves to travel into a human body.
Asimov agreed to write the novelization, he explained in a letter from that year, “(a) because of the challenge, I had never novelized a movie script before; (b) because of the chance to use my biochemistry; and (c) because I suspected the movie would be a smash hit.”
When the movie was in fact a hit, the book turned into a strong seller—helped by Asimov’s name, which he came to rue having associated with a story full of preposterous science. “How much air can a submarine the size of a bacterium hold?” he agonized in a letter to a friend before the book was even published.
Asimov’s frustration with the connection was so intense that in 1987, he published a sequel (Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain) just to show readers that he knew how to write a smarter story. In a letter that year, he declared that the new book was “twice as long and is ten times as good.”
Around the turn of the 21st century, finally, two Asimov movies—with real budgets, and real stars—hit theaters. Neither was very good.
Bicentennial Man (1999) was based on a novelette Asimov wrote in America’s bicentennial year and later expanded, with Robert Silverberg, into the 1992 novel The Positronic Man. The film stars Robin Williams in mawkish mode, as a robot who longs to be human. “Robin Williams spends the first half of the film encased in a metallic robot suit,” wrote Roger Ebert, “and when he emerges, the script turns robotic instead.”
Shot with a ludicrous $100 million budget, $37 million more than it cost to make The Matrix that same year, Bicentennial Man lost money. And yet, Hollywood coughed up $120 million to make I, Robot (2004), starring Will Smith as a future cop investigating a murder that seems to have been committed by a robot. It took a title and a few ideas, but little else, from Asimov’s 1950 story collection.
That movie made money, probably in part because it played far looser with its source material. Even if Asimov had articulated his worst fears regarding what Hollywood might do to his gentle, brainy robot stories, it’s hard to imagine he could have conceived that master robopsychologist Susan Calvin, a brilliant and very pointedly plain character in Asimov’s stories, would be played by a gorgeous model who ends up blowing away murderous robots with a machine gun.
Having approached the project with reservations, the author’s daughter Robyn (an executive producer of the new Foundation series) was ultimately moved to pen an op-ed asserting that “watching the movie, I felt my father’s presence. He cared little for Hollywood, but he was respectful and generous with others who promoted science and science fiction. In that regard, I, Robot, the movie, succeeds.” A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but she also noted that “he liked people to buy his books.”
Although direct adaptations have been middling, Asimov’s influence on screen science fiction has been towering. The genre’s signature franchise, Star Wars, draws heavily on Asimov’s vision of a Galactic Empire. When Lee Pace strides into the new Foundation series as a Galactic Emperor flanked by rows of cloaked and helmeted space centurions, it’s a reminder that when the evil Emperor Palpatine and his royal guards showed up in Return of the Jedi, it reflected Asimov’s transposition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire into outer space.
Will Goyer be the filmmaker who finally manages to close the gap between Foundation and Star Wars? Will his space spectacular reflect Asimov’s wish list for science fiction filmmakers: “thoughtful content, some interesting plotline, some characterization in depth”? Will the new Foundation series qualify as “s.f.,” in Asimov’s nomenclature, or simply another instance of “eye-sci-fi”?
Goyer certainly seems committed to the challenge of successfully rendering Asimov’s cerebral saga with cinematic sweep. The showrunner’s greatest advantage, compared to his predecessors among Asimov adapters, is that he’s working in the era of prestige streaming TV—an era Asimov never lived to see. Ironically, Goyer can potentially craft a more intricate web of interwoven plots than Asimov could when originally writing the Foundation stories one at a time for an audience of magazine-buyers.
The Second Foundation, for example, is a major pillar of the Foundation series plotline: an aptly-titled backup plan in case the original Foundation was to founder. (The third book in the original series is even titled Second Foundation.) Presumably the Second Foundation will serve an equally prominent role in the new TV series, but Asimov admitted in a letter to critic Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr. that “at the start I had no conception of the Second Foundation at all. It was merely a reserve in case I needed it.”
Character and relationship development are also likely to come to the fore in any successful TV Foundation. While Asimov’s writing deepened in his later years, what distinguished his early stories—such as those in the original Foundation series—was the sweep of their conception, not the subtlety of their characterization.
The Foundation trailers suggest the series will highlight the poignance of far-seeing mathematician Hari Seldon’s position and his rivalry with the Emperor, who understandably wants to repress any indication that his rule is shaky. Asimov’s galactic rulers were less than imposing: by the last book in the series, Forward the Foundation, Seldon and Emperor Cleon were literally tennis buddies. (“Cleon placed the ball in a nonreturnable position and won the game,” wrote Asimov, who was never in danger of being scooped up by Sports Illustrated.) In the series, by contrast, Goyer’s onscreen Emperor does not look like a man who tolerates terrycloth.
The new TV series was approved only after the Foundation project kicked around Hollywood for years. “Many top sci-fi writers have done scripts and found it daunting to constrict the sprawling saga to a feature film format,” reported Deadline. “Most recently, HBO tried developing a series several years ago.” Goyer has said he hopes to run the series for 80 episodes, though only ten have been greenlit at present.
The series producers are tightly guarding the details of how, precisely, the show will unfold, but it’s clear that they’ve gone beyond Asimov’s original stories and dipped into the Foundation novels he published in the last decade of his life: first a pair of sequels and then a pair of prequels, serving to continue the Foundation story and to interlink it with Asimov’s formerly separate series of robot stories.
The series will include the characters Eto Demerzel (a crafty Imperial advisor) and Raych Seldon (Foundation mastermind Hari Seldon’s adopted son), both of whom appear in the prequel novels Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (published posthumously in 1993). Demerzel is played by Laura Birn, in one of the show’s welcome gender-flips. Actress Lou Llobell has been cast as Gaal Dornick, a close Seldon collaborator; that character was also male in Asimov’s stories.
In assigning the names “Brother Day,” “Brother Dawn,” and “Brother Dusk” to members of the ruling family, Goyer may be gesturing to Asimov’s fondness for circadian imagery; between Foundation novels in the 1980s, Asimov published The Robots of Dawn, which emphasized the role of benevolent artificial beings in crafting a more hopeful future for the human race. That ended up involving the Foundation itself in ways that may become relevant to the new series, particularly if the producers take advantage of Asimov’s fondness for “humaniform” robots that are effectively immortal—and impossible to visually distinguish from actual humans.
Star Wars also drew on Asimov’s affection for robots, but the most Asimovian robot ever seen on screens is Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data’s innocence, curiosity, generosity, and bookish intelligence are right out of Asimov. R. Daneel Olivaw, the robot of human appearance who figures in Asimov’s robot novels, is a clear inspiration for Data, whose brain is even described, a la Asimov, as “positronic.”
The Star Trek franchise even offered an explicit tribute to Asimov in the 2020 series Picard, which turns on the eponymous Next Gen captain’s desire to help the late Data’s descendent. At one point, a character finds a compilation of Asimov’s robot stories sitting in the title character’s study. “Ah,” says Picard. “You have a taste for the classics, I see.”
Will Goyer and his collaborators exemplify the same taste? We’ll find out on September 24, when the new series launches. The fate of a well-loved far-future world is, yet again, at stake.